How should we posture ourselves toward those who have not yet experienced God’s grace in Christ?
We tend to think about this matter in the context of warning about “the world.” Some of the more common warnings include the following:
- “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2).
- “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: … to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
- “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (I John 2:15-17).
These Scriptures have been used at times to foster divisions between the Church and the world that have hindered Christian engagement. They have also been a source of confusion and debate about what is necessary to Christian living in the world. The pendulum of response has too often swung toward extremes that have resulted in postures toward the world in conflict with the gospel.
In his book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” James Davison Hunter summarized three typical postures believers have taken toward the world:
- Relevant to: this often entails abandonment of distinctiveness
- Defensive against: rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness but too often manifested in postures that are aggressive and confrontational or culturally trivial and inconsequential.
- Pure from: often entails disengagement and withdraw from active presence in huge areas of social life.
As we engage the world faithfully, we must not minimize the tension of what it means to be in the world but not of it – especially not in a way that compromises faithful presence as salt and light (see: Matthew 5:13-16).
Hunter offers an alternative to the three postures above that I will write more about in the future. For the moment, I want to encourage us to reflect on our place in God’s narrative of mercy as the defining point of reference for our posture toward those who have not yet received God’s grace in Christ. Misdirected division from the world too often fosters a spirit of prideful superiority that contradicts God’s mercy.
Consider the words from the apostle Paul in Titus 3:1-6
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men. 3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:1-6).
Key words describe life before salvation:
• Foolish: stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth.
• Disobedient: willful rejection of truth leading to outward opposition to God.
• Deceived: accepting what is false.
• Enslaved: giving ownership to sinful pleasures – self-governance for addiction and bondage.
• Vicious: living in malice, envy and hate.
How did we get out of this way of life?
By religion? By working really hard to change? No! We were rescued “when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared.” At this time, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:4-5). We cannot afford to lose sight of this or we will take the wrong posture toward others. When we forget God’s merciful intervention that rescued us, we feel emboldened to perhaps speak derisively about others. We are less likely to be “to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus 3:2).
When one chooses a posture based on personal experience of God’s merciful rescue mission (Titus 3:4-8), he will display the qualities toward outsiders and inquirers outlined in these Scriptures:
Colossians 4:5-6 “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
I Peter 3:15 “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Thought: We must be postured against the world, for the world.
Even our opposition must be for the good of the world. In many ways, this is the same as the role of love seeking the best for the one loved (as God defines what is best).
Part of our role as salt and light is to enter sympathetically into the dilemmas of our contemporaries and to unmask false and harmful ideologies. When called to be different from the world, it is to make a difference.
These two lines help define posture based in God’s mercy:
- Against the world, for the world
- Different to make a difference